It’s where most of us were first introduced to Charlie the Unicorn, Joseph Kony, Debbie from eHarmony, and essentially any “viral video” since the term was coined. But there’s another side to the video-sharing website—an innovative channel-based network that’s been the first to successfully mix mass media into social networking, and the first to propose a promising solution to the growing dichotomy between old and new forms of entertainment.
It’s on the idea of such a network that the site was first founded, and in November 2006, Google acquired it for some $1.65 billion. Since then, YouTube’s 800 million monthly users have continued to build on the site’s shoot-and-share network to upload, watch, rate, and comment on an increasingly sophisticated, specialized selection of videos.
The site’s growth has been astounding, and as other social networks have begun to catch on, YouTube has only boomed. Though the site’s initial user base consisted primarily of webcam vloggers (the word ‘vlog’ entered common usage in 2009) and copyright violators, today’s users can choose from a broad thematic spectrum that spans everything from news recaps to videogame walkthroughs to makeup tutorials to, of course, its home base of vlogs and copyright films.
YouTube’s most consistently popular channels top between 1 and 2 million hits per video. The site’s understate, free-to-join “Partner Program,” has been furthering YouTube beyond its initial growth. Through this program, YouTube provides contributors with “resources and opportunities to improve their skills, build larger audiences, and earn more money.”
Earn more money? Indeed, by selecting from any of the site’s in-video advertising options, money-mongering YouTubers (a status that can be easily attained by ‘associating‘ a YouTube account with an AdSense account) can earn anywhere between $0.0001 and $0.02 per video view.
This ad system has become something of a gold mine for multi-million subscribed channels like sxephil, otherwise known as “The Philip DeFranco Show,” an entertaining daily news overview; communitychannel, Natalie Tran’s masterfully-edited comedic rants about common concerns that’s been exemplifying the notion of ‘forever alone’ since before it was even a meme; and ShaneDawsonTV, a collection of Shane Dawson’s preteen-appropriate videos, which include quasi-vlogs and music videos. These channels took in $181,000, $101,000, and $315,000, respectively, in 2010-2011 on ad revenue alone.
Merchandise helps, too. Some YouTubers (like DeFranco) run their own online merchandise stores, while others (like Smosh or Dawson) coordinate through a third-party vendor like Spreadshirt. In DeFranco’s case, that store is his own enterprise, which provides customers with unique posters, prints, and T-shirts in limited quantities. Because DeFranco solicits his own artists, photographers, and models, the posters are not only unique and high-quality, but also generally appealing, and could easily sell with or without his coordination.
Even ads and merchandise aren’t all there is to a YouTuber’s revenue and perk potential. For some, especially the site’s booming collective of self-proclaimed “beauty gurus’” (a growing group of mostly female YouTubers who upload makeup tutorials, product reviews, and “hauls”—descriptions of their shopping successes and failures), there are also ample opportunities for sponsorships, company affiliations, and loads of free samples.
For others, there’s the prospect of using the site as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Michelle Phan, a popular “makeup guru,” has gone on to found her own company (MyGlam), her own network (FAWN), land a job at New York Fashion Week, and work as Lancôme’s first and only official online makeup artist. DeFranco has gone through much of the same entrepreneurial route to launch SourceFed and the aforementioned www.forhumanspeoples.com. The Gregory Brothers—better known as schmoyoho, the quartet behind auto-tune hits like “Bed Intruder,” Charlie Sheen’s ‘songified’ “winning,” and Debbie’s eHarmony video, have gone on tour and launched their own bestselling iPhone app, “Songify.”
But in a business like YouTube, fortune only follows fame—and fame tends only to follow those who adhere to the site’s general aesthetic niches. Save for genres like music and certain tutorials, it’s a style that demands bright lighting, hyperlink-annotating, high-quality camerawork, and chop-editing—that is, cutting the one-or two-second gaps in which an individual thinks, breathes, or “um”s in the midst of natural conversation. The aesthetic becomes even more formulaic for comedians, whose videos, though massively popular and undeniably funny, are almost exclusively music video parodies or chop-edited sequences about relatable yet mundane life problems.
Many have speculated that the rapid rise of YouTube has fundamentally altered the way we consume media, and the kind of media we consume. More than anything, it seems that the site has simply brought video-based entertainment full-circle. Just like television, YouTube has capitalized on audiences’ love for the intimacy of reality television, and on producers’ love of ad- an sponsorship-based revenues. Much as television began as a social experience shared by families, so too did YouTube boom largely via its social networking component and friend-to-friend sharing. And as evidenced by the increasing conformity of its comedic channels, YouTube is beginning to develop its own form of TV’s staid sitcom. YouTube has gone very much the route that television laid out for it some 50 to 60 years before, joining the ranks of regular television and radio to become a niche in entertainment.